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Capturing cultural celebrations in commercial photography

According to research commissioned by Facebook last year, 71% of people surveyed said that they expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion in online advertising, with 59% saying that they prefer to buy from brands that do so. Still, more than half (54%) of those surveyed said they did not feel culturally represented in online advertising. While we’ve made some strides in recent years, advertisers still need to do more to consistently create content that resonates with their customers.

In the last decade, as the population of the United States has grown significantly more diverse, the demand for representation has grown along with it. In 2021, we expect brands to take a stand and advocate for inclusion, and we also expect those values to be reflected across all communications, including the photography they choose for their campaigns. Below, we’ll take a look at just a few ways photographers can celebrate cultural diversity in their Licensing portfolios, while capturing unforgettable moments that are unique to their communities.


The Wedding by Mac Elliott on 500px.com

Thanksgiving celebration party by Anna Ivanova on 500px.com

Spotlight on: Food

Last December, Food & Wine named “heritage cooking” as one of its top trends for 2021, with chef Kevin Tien from Washington DC remarking on the (long overdue!) recognition of first-generation American and immigrant chefs. He looked forward to a year of cultural celebration through food, with Burmese-American, Ethiopian-American, Filipino-American, or Vietnamese-American dishes rising in popularity.

As part of a trend report released in September, Getty Images notes that food has ranked as one of the top 25 search terms among image-buyers in 2021. But for too long, commercial food photography hasn’t represented everyone equally. Here’s an example: as interest in veganism grows, searches for “plant-based” foods have gone up by 44% in the last year over on Getty Images, but culturally significant vegan foods like collard greens, daikon radish, green plantains, and more remain underrepresented.


Slices of pink watermelon radish on a wooden table with parsley by 5PH on 500px.com

Organic Green Lacinato Kale by Brent Hofacker on 500px.com

In 2021, it’s past time for food and lifestyle photography to be more inclusive. As cited by Getty Images, Asian and Latin American dishes have experienced a boom in popularity on the Grubhub delivery platform. According to Grubhub’s “State of the Plate” Report, trending foods include dishes ranging from mushroom and tofu broth ramen and seaweed salad to vegetable samosas and Korean barbecue cauliflower wings.


Japanese chuka salad on the wooden table by Oxana Denezhkina on 500px.com

Ramen with shiitake mushrooms and scallions by Vladislav Nosick on 500px.com

Dishes like these are popular among consumers and brands alike, offering an abundance of flavors, colors, and textures to explore through images. You can include them in still lives as well as candid, documentary-style photos of your models cooking together at home. Consider showing how recipes are passed down from generation to generation.


indian woman in the kitchen by ashvini sihra on 500px.com

The traditional way of making Bread (3º Photo) by Bruno Rosa on 500px.com

Spotlight on: Holidays

According to Getty Images, almost a quarter of food-related images are also related to celebrations. But while holidays like the Fourth of July, Christmas, and Thanksgiving are well-represented, Ramadan, Passover, and Lunar New Year are often overlooked in commercial photography. That’s not to say that demand for multicultural representations around the holidays doesn’t exist.


Traditional Turkish delight and tea by Yuliya Furman on 500px.com

young Vietnamese scholar at lunar new year calli by Quang Nguyen Vinh on 500px.com

Consider, for instance, Coca-Cola’s popular Ramadan commercial from 2018, titled Sunset, featuring two women breaking fast with dates and Coke. More recently, Chosen Foods ran a series of spots celebrating the work of Mexican and Mexican American artisans to coincide with Cinco de Mayo. If we go way back to 1923, you might remember that Maxwell House made the first-ever certified kosher coffee. By the 1930s, they’d published a Haggadah for customers to use during Passover Seders.


Holi | Chennai | 2017 by Ravikanth Kurma on 500px.com

On the table in the synagogue are the symbols of Rosh hashanah Jewish by valentyn semenov on 500px.com

All this is to say that brands want to connect with their customers over the moments and holidays that matter most—and they’ve been trying to get it right for a long time. Photographers can contribute to a more relatable, realistic celebration of the holidays by documenting the cultural events found in their communities, whether new or old.

Look for gaps in the content that’s already out there, and brainstorm ways to fill them. “Authentic depictions of cultural celebrations allow companies to market directly to certain demographics,” the 500px team reminds us. “But they also provide representation for those of that culture, highlighting and sharing their cultural identity with others.”


Romanian traditional dance by Zagrean Viorel on 500px.com

Spotlight on: Family traditions

Family traditions often go hand-in-hand with enjoying food and celebrating the holidays. As noted by Getty Images, research from FONA International finds that half of Asian Americans connect to their culture through cooking or eating, with roughly the same saying they connect to their culture through family. Meanwhile, research from Neilson indicates that 72% of Latinx Americans agree that it’s important to them that their children continue their family’s cultural traditions, with 73% saying their cultural heritage is an important part of who they are.


Lantern by Patrick on 500px.com

Three Girls by David Talukdar on 500px.com

No culture is monolithic, so it’s crucial to remember that every individual family has its own traditions. Look for ways to include multiple generations to tell a larger story. Maybe it’s cooking tamales on Christmas with your grandparents in Costa Rica, or perhaps it’s celebrating the Hindu Holi Fest with your parents and friends. It could be dressing up for Día de los Muertos, or it might be attending a parade on Mardi Gras. It could be as simple as finding the afikoman on Passover or exchanging a lucky red envelope (hóngb?o) for Lunar New Year.

One thing to keep in mind for all lifestyle photoshoots is model and property releases, as you’ll need these documents to license your work commercially. Additionally, steer clear of branded or trademarked elements like logos or artwork. Discuss these details with all your models and property owners (or tenants) before the session to make sure they’re on board. Explain that the photos could be used in advertising and marketing materials, where many cultural traditions and celebrations remain underrepresented, and invite them to contribute their input and ideas.


Indigenous people celebrating the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca Mexico by Iknu Art on 500px.com

Research from Morning Consult reveals that 62% of Asian Americans, 41% of Hispanic Americans, 32% of Black Americans, and 24% of white Americans say they feel they are rarely, if ever, represented in advertising. While it’s important to prioritize inclusion in casting, demographic profiling remains a major issue in marketing. In order to resonate, these kinds of depictions need to be authentic.


Mehndi tradition in indian marriages by pixlagoon on 500px.com

To celebrate cultural diversity in a responsible way, while avoiding stereotypes, start with people close to you. Show us what your culture means to you and your family. Do your research to learn the history and significance of the celebrations you want to photograph. Finally, let your models take ownership over the session, and ask them questions about the direction of the shoot: What are some important facets of their identity? What traditions do they hope to pass down to their kids? What do they wish they saw more of in advertising? If you come from a genuine and collaborative place, it will shine through in your portfolio.


Anonymous girls in folklore costumes, back detail by Andrea Obzerova on 500px.com

The last year has been a painful one, with incidents of bias and prejudice making headlines around the world. In 2021, we all bear the responsibility of dismantling stereotypes and uplifting historically marginalized voices. Photographers are uniquely qualified to help reshape how we see each other’s cultures, so show us people who are proud to share their stories and identities—and do it on their terms.

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